The debate about dam removal in the US usually focuses on two parties — the environmentalists and the hydro industry. In the Pacific Northwest, however, another industry has taken up the challenge to sway the tide of public opinion and save the country’s dams. Suzanne Moxon reports
When I first tried to contact the person at the forefront of the latest campaign to prevent the removal of US dams, I was somewhat surprised to learn that he was working in the fields. Tom Flint is a farmer, I was told, who is pretty busy at the moment tending to the crops on his 900 acres of farmland. After logging on to the Save Our Dams website and speaking to others in the industry who respect this campaigner, I was intrigued to learn more about the Washington-based farmer who believes ‘we need a strong and unified stand to turn this wave of dam breaching and dam removal around’.
It was an error of my own judgement to question initially why a farmer, who has no direct involvement with the hydro industry, would be campaigning to save dams just as passionately as dam owners themselves. The answer is simple: ‘I am a hydro dam user,’ Flint says.
‘I am a farmer in central Washington state — an arid agricultural area which is very much dependent on irrigation. Hydro is the best, cleanest renewable energy in the world and to take this away from farmers would be a travesty in my mind. Hydro and irrigation go hand in hand and there can’t be one without the other.’ Flint explains how over the past ten years charges for irrigating his land from the Grand Coulee dam have doubled due to the mandates imposed on hydro schemes under the Endangered Species Act. ‘This is really what got me going,’ he said. ‘Power charges to irrigate land have doubled from US$20 to US$40 per acre but, at the same time, we have not seen a price rise in our commodities. Agriculture in the area is really in a depression.’ The reason why the Endangered Species Act has placed such a costly burden on Washington hydro projects, among others in the country, is due to the declining number of salmon in the state’s rivers. Dams are said to be at fault and there is a movement in the region to remove dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers. The US Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service have carried out a US$20M study into the declining number of salmon on the Lower Snake river. The draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is due to be released later this year and indications are that dam removal will be recommended as the best way to restore depleted fish numbers. It has been determined that bypassing the dams gives an 80-100% certainty of restoring salmon to pre-dam levels within 15-24 years. Congress will make any final decisions.
The bottom line
‘Five years ago I would not have thought that there would have been discussion about removing large dams,’ says Christine Stallard, director of public affairs at Grant County PUD in Washington. ‘Yes, hydro does have its problems but it does not make sense to dismantle a system which has been working well for a number of years.’ ‘The bottom line,’ Flint says, ‘is that we are not anti-salmon or anti-fish. There are a lot of other factors which can influence salmon numbers and are more damaging than dams. I’ve never seen so much mis-information used against the good benefits of hydro in all of my life.’ Flint emphasises that members of the Save Our Dams campaign are not opposed to salmon restoration but their belief is that any plan should protect the people as well as the salmon. ‘If the recommendation is made [to remove dams], all dams in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere in the nation are at risk,’ the farmer stressed. Stallard agreed, expressing her concern: ‘This is a mind boggling situation. The US Army Corps’ report does not affect any of our dams at present but one thing can lead to another.’ As Senator Slade Gorton said at the Fifth Pacific Northwest Public Affairs conference in December 1998: ‘The region must decide how highly it values salmon, flood control, irrigated agriculture, hydro power generation and other uses of the river.’ And this is exactly what Tom Flint has done.
Concerned by the thought that the removal of dams in the Pacific Northwest could threaten irrigation on hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland, devastate the local farming economy, prevent the transportation of agricultural goods on the river, increase the price of local power, remove flood control and reduce the amount of water recreation, Tom Flint established the Save Our Dams campaign. ‘Save Our Dams is a grassroots, non-profit coalition,’ he said. ‘We feel very strongly about it.’ On 1 December 1998 Flint started a petition on the internet. This ran for 60 days on a site sponsored by a nature conservation group. Over 800 signatures were collected. Two days later the same site ran a petition by an organisation advocating dam removal to save the salmon. This also ran for 60 days but collected 76 signatures.
Seventy per cent of those who signed the Save Our Dams petition lived in the Pacific Northwest. On the other side of the issue the majority of anti-dam petitioners lived outside of the area, mainly in metropolitan areas. Flint realised that those who are campaigning for dam removal may not even live in the vicinity of their targets, and are not fully aware of the benefits of hydro. ‘We need to collect information which supports the benefits of hydro dams,’ he said. ‘There are a gamut of good things about it and we need to start getting good reliable information out there.’ According to Flint there are plenty of positive environmental facts about hydro and irrigation which can be used in the global warming debate. The natural transpiration of plants removes carbon dioxide from the air, for example. Studies have shown that irrigating and growing crops on 36,000 acres of land can remove the CO2 produced by two million vehicles. In another example, transporting goods by river, aided by dams through the creation of slack water, reduces the need for trucks on the roads. Traffic on the Columbia river replaces 700,000 vehicles.
And of course if hydroelectric stations were removed the power would have to be replaced, probably from either coal or natural gas generation which both have impacts on air quality. ‘These are plus, plus points for hydro,’ Flint enthuses.
Spurred on by his initial success, and aware that a lot of the farming community does not have internet access, Flint re-organised and redistributed the petition. To date over 32,000 signatures have been collected, mainly from the northwestern states. ‘Most people who are involved in agriculture in the Pacific Northwest, and who use dams for irrigation, support the campaign,’ Flint says.
The petition will be used to create a positive image of hydro. It will be distributed to politicians to inform them about what is happening in the region and to support those who are supporting dams. Specific targets will be those who are ‘sitting on the fence’ about the relicensing bill which is currently working its way through the US legal system (see IWP&DC January 1999, pp24-25). ‘Relicensing will have an effect on farming,’ Flint adds. ‘If project costs are increased through mandatory conditions than the price of power and irrigation will also increase, ultimately pushing up the cost of food.’ The final presentation of the petition depends on when the US Army Corps releases its Snake river study — petition signatures will be collected until the EIS is made public. The petition will also be used in the 2000 elections.
So far the response from politicians has been encouraging. Senator Gorton has spoken about the economic damage that would ensue if dams were removed in Washington. ‘Before the dams eastern Washington had few farms and was a dust bowl,’ he said in Wheat Life magazine. ‘The entire agricultural community in eastern Washington is now tied to the dams.’ At a Save Our Dams rally held in Pasco, Washington on 19 February this year over 3000 people attended. It was well supported by politicians: one observer could not remember another time when such a large group of politicians left the capital in mid-session to attend a single event. After the rally, on 24 February, President Clinton and the Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbit, were questioned about the Snake and Columbia dam removal proposal. US Representative George Nethercutt accused the administration of ‘not looking adequately at the human consequences of removing dams from the river systems’.
Furthermore, in March Christine Stallard from Grant County PUD went with Tom Flint to their northwestern representatives’ constituent offices in Washington, DC. ‘We were very welcome,’ Stallard said. ‘And they were very interested in the campaign. Politicians know that people like Tom are the people who vote for them.’ Stallard believes that this gives the campaign great credibility. ‘It’s more effective as it comes from a member of the community,’ she explained. ‘We have done surveys which show that the general public are more sceptical about information which comes from big businesses, like utilities, or the government. This is not seen, nor is, a utility programme. It has greater credibility in more people’s eyes.’ Reflecting on the campaign, which seems to be picking up supporters throughout the US, Flint says it has been like a breath of fresh air to him and other farmers: ‘Before it felt like we were boxed in a corner and it was as if nothing we could do would make a difference. But this is no longer true. We are getting together collectively to make a difference. Save Our Dams was the best thing to do and a lot of people share my view.’ With publication of the Snake river report delayed until later this year (it was originally scheduled for April but some biological studies are not yet complete) it seems as if the hydro and agricultural industries are waiting together with bated breath. The two different industries, who seem to have become allies in the dam removal debate, will ensure that their concerns are voiced just as loudly as those of environmentalists. They want politicians and the rest of the US to know that the needs and welfare of people who live and work in the area must be considered. As one protester at the Save Our Dams rally said: ‘If you breach these dams, you rip the heart out of this state.’